Jerry Buss had been a chemist and a mathematician long before he bought the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979. The self-made millionaire with a head for business and an impresario’s heart assailed the NBA with every skill he acquired along the way.
With his personal alchemy and charisma, he blended two generations of marquee basketball stars and big-name coaches into 10 championship teams. His financial wizardry allowed him to pay top dollar to get the best players and keep them together without a huge personal fortune.
Buss built a glittering life for himself and the Lakers, playing a huge role in the NBA’s move from a second-tier pro sport into can’t-miss Hollywood entertainment while polishing his oddly nicknamed franchise into a glamorous global brand.
Magic, Kareem and Big Game James. Kobe, Shaq and Pau.
They were the stars, but Buss created Showtime.
The applause still hasn’t died down.
Buss, who shepherded the Lakers from their 1980s dynasty through the current Kobe Bryant era while becoming one of the most important and successful owners in pro sports, died Monday. He was 80.
“Jerry Buss was more than just an owner. He was one of the great innovators that any sport has ever encountered,” said Pat Riley, who coached four of Buss’ 10 title teams. “He was a true visionary, and it was obvious with the Lakers in the ’80s that ‘Showtime’ was more than just Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was really the vision of a man who saw something that connected with a community.”
Under Buss’ leadership, the star-studded, trophy-winning Lakers became Southern California’s most beloved sports franchise and a signature cultural representation of Los Angeles. Buss acquired, nurtured and befriended a staggering array of talented players and hoops minds during his Hall of Fame tenure, from Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy to Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
“Think about the impact that he’s had on the game and the decisions he’s made, and the brand of basketball he brought here with Showtime and the impact that had on the sport as a whole,” Bryant said a few days ago. “Those vibrations were felt to a kid all the way in Italy who was 6 years old, before basketball was even global. His impact is felt worldwide.”
Few owners in sports history can approach Buss’ accomplishments with the Lakers, who made the NBA Finals 16 times during his nearly 34 years in charge, winning 10 titles between 1980 and 2010. Whatever the Lakers did under Buss’ watch, they did it big — with the big-name players Hollywood demanded, an eye-popping style of play and a relentless pursuit of success with little regard to its financial cost.
“His incredible commitment and desire to build a championship-caliber team that could sustain success over a long period of time has been unmatched,” said Jerry West, Buss’ longtime general manager and now a consultant with the Golden State Warriors. “With all of his achievements, Jerry was without a doubt one of the most humble men I’ve ever been around. His vision was second to none; he wanted an NBA franchise brand that represented the very best and went to every extreme to accomplish his goals.”
Buss died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said Bob Steiner, his assistant and longtime friend. Buss had been hospitalized for most of the past 18 months while undergoing cancer treatment, but the cause of death was kidney failure, Steiner said.
“When someone as celebrated and charismatic as Jerry Buss dies, we are reminded of two things,” said Abdul-Jabbar, the leading scorer in NBA history. “First, just how much one person with vision and strength of will can accomplish. Second, how fragile each of us is, regardless of how powerful we were. Those two things combine to inspire us to reach for the stars, but also to remain with our feet firmly on the ground among our loved ones. … The man may be gone, but he has made us all better people for knowing him.”
With his condition worsening in recent months, several prominent former Lakers visited Buss to say goodbye. Even rivals such as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and Clippers owner Donald Sterling hailed the passion and bonhomie of the poor kid from Wyoming who lived his own Hollywood dream.
“Dr. Buss was a visionary and an incredible business man with a serious passion for numbers,” Johnson tweeted. “I will always remember Dr. Buss’ big smile, his love for the (at) Lakers, for poker & billiards, for the City of LA and for beautiful women.”
Buss always referred to the Lakers as his extended family, and his players rewarded his fanlike excitement with devotion, friendship and two hands full of championship rings. Working with front-office executives West, Bill Sharman and Mitch Kupchak, Buss spent lavishly to win his titles, often running the NBA’s highest payroll while also paying high-profile coaches Riley and Phil Jackson.
Ownership of the Lakers is now in a trust controlled by Buss’ six children, who all have worked for the Lakers in various capacities for several years. With 1,786 victories, the Lakers easily are the NBA’s winningest franchise since he bought the club, which is now run largely by Jim Buss and Jeanie Buss.
“We not only have lost our cherished father, but a beloved man of our community and a person respected by the world basketball community,” the Buss family said in a statement issued by the Lakers.
“It was our father’s often-stated desire and expectation that the Lakers remain in the Buss family. The Lakers have been our lives as well, and we will honor his wish and do everything in our power to continue his unparalleled legacy.”
Johnson and fellow Hall of Famers Abdul-Jabbar and Worthy formed lifelong bonds with Buss during the Lakers’ run to five titles in nine years in the 1980s, when the Lakers earned a reputation as basketball’s most exciting team.
The buzz extended throughout the Forum, where Buss turned the Lakers’ games into a must-see event. He used the Laker Girls, a brass band and promotions to keep Lakers fans interested during all four quarters. Courtside seats, priced at $15 when he bought the Lakers, became the hottest tickets in Hollywood — and they still are, with fixture Jack Nicholson and many other celebrities attending every home game.
“Anybody associated with the NBA since 1980 benefited greatly from Jerry Buss’ impact on the game,” Steiner said. “He had a different way of looking at things than I did, and people who had been raised in basketball.”
Buss paid the Lakers’ bills through both their wild success and his groundbreaking moves to raise revenue. He co-founded a basic-cable sports television network and sold the naming rights to the Forum at times when both now-standard strategies were unusual, further justifying his induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
Just last year, the Lakers debuted on two new cable sports networks in a groundbreaking deal with Time Warner worth a reported $5 billion.
“The NBA has lost a visionary owner whose influence on our league is incalculable and will be felt for decades to come,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “More importantly, we have lost a dear and valued friend.”
Showtime couldn’t last forever, but after a rough stretch in the 1990s, Buss rekindled the Lakers’ mystique by paying top dollar to hire Jackson, who led O’Neal and Bryant to a three-peat from 2000-02. Bryant and Gasol won two more titles under Jackson in 2009 and 2010.
The current Lakers (25-29) have struggled mightily despite adding Howard and Steve Nash in a couple of moves that were typical of Buss’ brash style. Los Angeles could miss the playoffs this spring for just the third time since Buss bought the franchise.
“Today is a very sad day for all the Lakers and basketball,” Gasol tweeted. “All my support and condolences to the Buss family. Rest in peace Dr. Buss.”
Although Buss gained fame and another fortune with the Lakers, he also was a scholar, Renaissance man and bon vivant who epitomized California cool his entire public life.
Buss rarely appeared in public without at least one attractive, much younger woman on his arm — at Southern California football games, high-stakes poker tournaments, hundreds of boxing matches promoted by Buss at the Forum — and, of course, Lakers games from his private box at Staples Center, which was built under his watch. With his failing health, Buss hadn’t attended a Lakers game in the past two seasons.
After a rough-and-tumble childhood that included stints as a ditch-digger and a bellhop in the frigid Wyoming winters, Buss earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from USC at 24, and had careers in aerospace and real estate development before getting into sports.
With money from his real-estate ventures and a good bit of creative accounting, Buss bought the then-struggling Lakers, the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and both clubs’ arena — the Forum — from Jack Kent Cooke in a $67.5 million deal that was the largest sports transaction in history at the time.
Last month, Forbes estimated the Lakers were worth $1 billion, second most in the NBA.
Buss also helped change televised sports by co-founding the Prime Ticket network in 1985, and he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006 for his work in television. Breaking the contemporary model of subscription services for televised sports, Buss’ Prime Ticket put beloved broadcaster Chick Hearn and the Lakers’ home games on basic cable.
Buss also sold the naming rights to the Forum in 1988 to Great Western Savings & Loan — another deal that was ahead of its time.
Born in Salt Lake City, Gerald Hatten Buss was raised in poverty before improving his life through education. He also grew to love basketball, describing himself as an “overly competitive but underly endowed player.”
After graduating from the University of Wyoming, Buss attended USC for graduate school because he loved its sports teams. He also became a chemistry professor and worked in the missile division of defense contractor McDonnell Douglas before carving out a path to wealth and sports prominence.
His real-estate portfolio grew out of a $1,000 investment in a West Los Angeles apartment building with partner Frank Mariani, an aerospace engineer and co-worker.
Heavily leveraging his fortune and various real-estate holdings during two years of negotiations, Buss purchased Cooke’s entire Los Angeles sports empire along with a 13,000-acre ranch in Kern County. Buss immediately worked to transform the Lakers — who had won just one NBA title since moving west from Minneapolis in 1960 — into a star-powered endeavor befitting Hollywood.
“One of the first things I tried to do when I bought the team was to make it an identification for this city, like Motown in Detroit,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. “I try to keep that identification alive. I’m a real Angeleno. I want us to be part of the community.”
With showmanship, fearless spending and a little drafting luck, Buss quickly succeeded: Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar and coach Paul Westhead led the Lakers to the 1980 title. Johnson’s ball-handling wizardry and Abdul-Jabbar’s smooth inside game made for an attractive style of play, and the Lakers came to define West Coast sophistication.
Riley, the former broadcaster who fit the L.A. image perfectly with his slick-backed hair and good looks, became one of the best coaches in NBA history after Buss promoted him, leading the Lakers to four straight NBA finals and four titles.
“I was privileged to be part of that for 10 years and even more grateful for the friendship that has lasted all these many years,” said Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat. “I have always come to realize that if it weren’t for Dr. Buss, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Overall, the Lakers made the Finals nine times in Buss’ first 12 seasons while rekindling the NBA’s best rivalry with the Boston Celtics, and Buss basked in the worldwide celebrity he received from his team’s achievements. His partying became the stuff of Los Angeles legends, with even his players struggling to keep up with Buss’ lifestyle.
Johnson’s HIV diagnosis and retirement in 1991 staggered Buss and the Lakers, the owner recalled in 2011. The Lakers went through seven coaches and made just one conference finals appearance in an eight-year stretch of the 1990s despite the 1996 arrivals of O’Neal, who signed with Los Angeles as a free agent, and Bryant, the 17-year-old high schooler acquired in a draft-week trade.
Shaq and Kobe didn’t reach their potential until Buss persuaded Jackson, the Chicago Bulls’ six-time NBA champion coach, to take over the Lakers in 1999. Los Angeles immediately won the next three NBA titles in brand-new Staples Center, AEG’s state-of-the-art downtown arena built with the Lakers as the primary tenant.
After the Lakers traded O’Neal in 2004, they hovered in mediocrity again until acquiring Gasol in a heist of a trade with Memphis in early 2008. Los Angeles made the next three NBA Finals, winning two more titles.
Buss owned the NHL’s Kings from 1979-87, and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks won two league titles under Buss’ ownership.
Buss’ children have pledged to continue his commitment to the Lakers’ distinctive success, although their efforts haven’t been rewarded in the past three years while Jerry Buss ceded many decision-making responsibilities to Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of player personnel and the second-oldest child. While daughter Jeanie runs the franchise’s business side, Jim Buss now has the final say on basketball decisions.
“I am blessed with a wonderful family who have helped me and guided me every step of the way,” Buss said in 2010 at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “This support is the best anybody could ever have.”
Buss is survived by his six children: sons Johnny, Jim, Joey and Jesse, and daughters Jeanie Buss and Janie Drexel. He had eight grandchildren.
Arrangements are pending for a funeral and memorial service, likely at Staples Center or a nearby theater in downtown Los Angeles.